Learning to Cook as a Metaphor for Life

            When I moved into an apartment complex for graduate students, I no longer had access to cafeteria food. I was on my own for all meals, a terrifying concept for someone whose repertoire consisted of canned soup, fried bologna sandwiches and fried eggs. I relied on things that came in cans and boxes, food that required little preparation, minimizing failure. There were times when I yearned for better food, but I was on full scholarship due to financial hardship, so there was no money for eating out.

            Marriage thrust me into new responsibilities, one of them being to cook dinner five nights a week. I relied on my old standbys even though I really wanted to do better.

            One time a soup can had a deal: for a certain numbers of labels I could get a cookbook for the cost of shipping. It didn’t take me long to save up the requisite number and send them off.  When the cookbook arrived, all the pictures looked inviting.

            One of the first things I decided to try was a squash stuffed with ground beef and rice. It required advanced preparation. The night before I gouged out the squash seeds and mixed together the rest of the ingredients. We had been given a set of dishes. I used a square one to arrange the stuffed squash, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.

            All the next day I dreamed of the meal I would present to my new husband. As soon as I got home, I turned on the oven. I changed clothes while waiting for it to reach the proper temperature. With excitement and anticipation, I removed the wrap and put the dish in the oven.

            Imagine my horror when the dish cracked! I didn’t know that the dish couldn’t go from the refrigerator to oven. It was an off-brand, not the advertised one. The meal was ruined.

            I dreaded telling my husband. After all, it was my responsibility to fix dinner and now there was nothing left. Tears streamed down my face as I waited anxiously for him to arrive.

            This was when I learned what an awesome man my husband is. He didn’t get angry. Not at the ruined meal or the broken dish. Instead he gave me a big hug, helped clean up the oven and then prepared a wonderful meal of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

            I relied on that cookbook for years. I leaned to make an awesome meatloaf with cream of mushroom soup as a base. I made a nice pot roast using onion soup, in the electric skillet. I experimented with baking chicken in cream of chicken soup and kept on trying new things. Our family always had a warm meal that was edible.

Because of that cookbook my confidence grew. The pages got stained and wrinkled, but I could still read the directions! Even today it still has a special place in the kitchen, even though I no longer do the cooking.

There were other disasters. My husband makes delicious fudge. It seemed easy enough, so I gave it a try. Mine ended up being chocolate sauce.

Then there was turkey soup. I had seen my husband take the carcass and turn it into broth. I seemed like something I should be able to do. I chopped the veggies and put it in the pot. I followed the steps carefully. My broth was horrible! It tasted more like dirty dish water than soup.

My husband likes lamb. My family never ate it, so I knew nothing about what cuts are the best, but I had a recipe. Once again I followed directions. It smelled okay. He ate it, but I couldn’t stand the taste and neither could any of our kids.

I learned to stick to the basics. Try nothing exotic or that had too many steps or ingredients. Roast beef, chicken and ground beef were my go-to meats.  As long as I could cook it in broth or soup or mix in something to keep it tender, I did fine. I discovered a range of things that came out good in a crock pot, such as a turkey leg or barbeque beef.

I bought boxes of pizza dough mix and painstakingly kneaded it. I mushed it out and then covered it with whatever ingredients we had on hand. It wasn’t as good as store-bought, but it was satisfying.

Cooking requires a certain degree of skill, but mostly an understanding of how food works together. What spices go with what meats and what sauces add flavor to tougher cuts. How to blend, chop and combine ingredients into palatable dishes. And patience. Lots and lots of patience, something which I don’t possess.

Cooking days are behind me, a true blessing. But when I look back on my earlier failures, it is not with despair, but with more of a sense of accomplishment. Thanks to my husband’s kind support, I tried again and again, learning along the way what I could do, not just what I couldn’t.

Isn’t that what life is all about? Learning not just from our successes, but also from our failures.

Incomplete Information

            How many opinions have we formed based upon something we’ve heard? Unfortunately in this technological age when, with typing a few words, we can find resources that are trusted, based on researched facts, too many cement their beliefs in place, closing off polite discourse.

            The past four years serve as a good example of how anyone can throw out ideas that quickly become firm beliefs even though the person held no credentials, had done no research and was not a member of a reliable organization or college, yet spoke as if he was all those things and more. Divisiveness resulted, creating deeper caverns as time passed.

            I have to admit that I am sometimes quick to form opinions. Without evidence I would decide that a certain individual wouldn’t like me and so walked away. What if she could have been my new best friend? What if he could have helped me solve a problem? I will never know because I made my decision based on incomplete information.

            I’ve also chosen potential friends based on that same lack of  information. During my senior year of college two of my roommates seemed to be friendly. They greeted me politely and would stop and talk before heading off. I can’t recall ever doing anything with them outside of our shared suite which should have sent a message, but it didn’t.

            After graduation, since the three of us lived in the Bay Area, we thought we’d get together. One lived in Marin County. She had money and a car. I had neither. She invited me to her family home, which was nice, but it would have required me getting permission to borrow the family car and driving somewhere I knew nothing about. This was before GPS systems so paper maps were all we had. I was a fairly inexperienced driver, so the thought of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge was terrifying. I backed out, giving her a feeble excuse.

            She got married a few months later and sent an invitation. I had little money to buy a gift, but I chose the nicest thing I could afford, some soft, pretty towels. I intended to go to her wedding, but as it got closer to the date to respond and confirm, I backed out. When I called her to tell her, I suggested meeting somewhere in San Francisco so I could give her the gift. She refused.

            That’s when I realized that I had used incomplete information when deciding that she was my friend. I was not in her social class and so could never mingle in her circles. It made me terribly sad.

            After a disastrous event during my college years, I was terrified of men for quite some time. I assumed that all men were like the one who abused me. He had seemed like a friend, had acted like a friend, and was, in fact, my brother’s friend. I trusted him. When he invited me to the apartment he shared with his wife, I felt no fear. However, when he bolted the door behind me I questioned his intent, but didn’t ask.       

Allowing myself to be in that situation was a reliance on incomplete information. I had heard of women being attacked, but knew no one personally who had been a victim. I assumed that my university was a safe place. That no one there would take advantage of me. When it happened I was shaken. My trust was shattered.

I did not know how precarious of a position I had walked into until it happened. My ignorance caused me to form an opinion that all men would treat me in the same way. It was years before I could trust a man again.

            As a child of a dysfunctional family I assumed that all families were like mine. Because I had not been permitted to enter others’ homes, I had incomplete information. I thought that all families were like min, where insults and ridicule, threats and punishment were every day events.

My eyes were opened when my parents allowed me to spend a night at a classmate’s house. Until the visit, I did not know that a family could gather around the table for a meal and share jokes and stories without criticism. I didn’t know that families could sit in front of the television and laugh at the antics of characters without being ridiculed if I found something funny that they did not. I also discovered that children could be sent to bed with hugs and kisses as opposed to spankings and other threats of punishment.

My information base shifted. I now knew that something was wrong with the way I lived. There was nothing I could do to escape as I was too young and had no one I could turn to. The one thing that I did do was begin gathering information using my eyes and ears.

Several years later I fell ill when away at college. A friend’s family took me home and nursed me back to health. They were kind, gentle and patient. They were quiet people who never spoke loudly. There was no hate, no mean comments, no divisiveness. They didn’t monitor my activities but gave me space to heal.

I had never experienced such kindness before. This rattled my opinions about what constituted family and how families behaved toward one another. I was surprised at how they spoke to each other and listened to what each of them said. One evening when I was feeling better, they took me to a play. Their son had a lead role. He was a good actor for someone so young. What struck me was that after the play, no one teased him or made fun of him. Instead they congratulated him and praised his performance. I was pleasantly shocked.

My experience of family changed based on gathering information. There was nothing I could do to change my own family, but I could hold the lessons dear for future reference.

I could go on and on, but it isn’t necessary. Thanks to the Internet it’s now possible to conduct research by checking out a variety of sources. Some are to be trusted while others are not. A discerning individual can ferret out which are reliable and which are not. Through this process a person can gather sufficient information to make an opinion based on fact.

Relying on incomplete information is no longer acceptable. Look about, read, investigate, ask questions of yourself and others. Peruse a variety of articles. Figure out who the sources are and what their credentials are, whether or not they are qualified to be dispensing information.

Once you are convinced that a piece of information is accurate, then formulate an opinion, but be open to challenges from outside sources. As time passes often foundations are rattled. New evidence appears or the source goes off on an unsubstantiated rant, making you question whether or not that person is a reliable source anymore.

The important thing to remember is that incomplete information is misinformation, plain and simple.

Life’s Journey

            My friend and I have been sharing the various paths our lives have taken.  Neither of us had an easy time along the way. Both of us have disappointments. No matter where our journeys took us, we agree that the steps we traveled made us who we are today.

            When I was in Kindergarten I decided to become a teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher was kind to me; in fact, she barely spoke to me or recognized me in any way. She’d drop a bunch of worksheets on my desk and then move on to the next student. She did know what skills I was deficient in, however, because I worked on the name of colors, shapes, the alphabet and recognizing basic numbers.

            The one positive thing that the teacher offered was calm and safety. She never yelled at me or anyone else. She never slapped or threatened me in any way.

            Because I felt safer in Kindergarten than I did at home, I liked it there and soon chose teaching as a career.

            My first job was keeping score at a local bowling alley. I was only fourteen, but I had spent much of my early years in bowling alleys. My dad was a semi-professional bowler who traveled to competitions. He taught me to bowl when I was twelve. Keeping score was a logical choice.

            In college I began working for aa fast food restaurant. At first I only took orders and then handed them over when filled. As my confidence grew I learned to make coleslaw. I had to stick my hands into deep vats and stir the ingredients around. My hands and arms would get so cold that I couldn’t feel them.

When strawberry season arrived, I took over the pie-making enterprise.  I was the best at trimming the berries. I could cut off the stem so quickly and neatly that no one could match my efforts.

That was a major turning point on my life’s journey. Knowing that there was something I could do better than anyone else boosted my ego. Ironically, although I had been a good student out of fear of physical punishment, now my grades stayed high because my confidence had improved.

When I transferred to USC I found a job at the university book store. I was so happy! I begged for more hours but was refused because students were restricted to how many hours they could work in a week.

Books called my name. Sometimes while shelving new books, I had to stop and read the cover. If it appealed to me, I put one aside. Often I bought them even though my earnings were supposed to supplement the grants that paid my housing.

I returned to writing when I realized the university published a literary newspaper. I submitted poems, but never had any accepted. Despite those rejections, my confidence as a writer grew.

I got a job working the front desk in a residence hall. It was my responsibility to screen anyone entering. It forced me to talk to people, something I was wont in doing. I discovered that people often wanted to know what I was thinking. They would stand and listen, then share a bit of their story. I met some awesome people who remained friends until graduation.

Another step on my journey checked off.

I applied to be a resident advisor during the summer. The residents were not students, but an ever-changing group of conference attendees. Oh, my, they were a lot of fun! There were social events almost every evening. I was invited to attend, but understood that I was not to abandon my post. Often food was delivered to me. The person making the delivery would stand and talk.

I learned that I could talk to strangers, fulfilling another step on my journey.

My first full-time job was as a customer service representative in a furniture store. That was horrendous. All day long I was bombarded by unhappy, sometimes angry people. All found fault with the furniture or the delivery. I wanted money refunded. I didn’t know what to do and no one bothered to train me.

This was a step backward. My confidence took a hit.

The office had a switchboard for the telephone service. I applied when a position opened and got it. I loved connecting calls. It was fun and something I learned quickly. All I had to do was match the plug to the right hole.

Check one off for confidence!

When I took that job I knew it would never become a career: it was the first job offered.

The government needed employees, so I took the test and scored high enough to be hired by the infamous IRS. This was a huge step on my life’s journey, benefitted by the government’s need to hire women.

I hated seizing property to pay tax debts. I was terrible at calculating interest and penalties despite mat being a strength for me. I hated walking into dark bars and going into strangers’ homes.

Most people were respectful even though I represented a hated agency. One time I was threatened by the owner of an automobile tire shop. The next day I returned with gun-toting agents. Even though nothing happened, I tremble for days.

One positive that moved me along my journey was that I learned to speak to strangers. Another momentous event was meeting my future husband in the office. If I hadn’t met him, who knows were my journey would have gone?

In the past 46 years I’ve had three amazing children who are all successes in their own way. Add in seven talented grandchildren who fill me with joy.

I got to become that teacher 38 years ago, and taught for 34. In my college classes to earn my credentials and certificates, I garnered information that allowed me to mentor peers, lead workshops and participate in district-wide trainings.

My favorite part of the job was being a mentor. It filled my heart with joy when someone came to me for suggestions and advice.

Another step along the way.

Now that I am retired, you might think that my journey was nearly over. Wrong.

I listen to the news, read newspapers and magazines and talk with friends. I gather information from all those sources that develop my opinions and beliefs. I read books that take me into worlds and situations I met never see. I travel to countries I’d never thought about visiting.

Everything I’ve done, whether there were positive or negative outcomes, have made me who I am today. Because I am always learning, I know that I will continue to progress.

My life’s journey isn’t yet over and that’s a wonderful thing.

Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.

 

A Younger Me

I was a fat baby. Earliest photos show fat lines around my wrists, knees, elbows, well, just about everywhere.

As I grew older, I did not lose that fat. Instead it grew with me. It’s not that I didn’t exercise. I was an active kid. I played kickball, softball, baseball, whiffle ball, croquet and more. I built snow forts in the winter. I hiked through the woods behind our house. I climbed trees and searched for maple leaves.

Even so, I remained fat.

When I was about ten years old my parents enrolled me in skating lessons at the local rink. This was not due to a request of mine, but rather something they decided I should do.

If they had asked, I would have declined.

I had roller skates at home. I did learn to skate and did so in the garage fairly regularly. I was capable of skating around and around in circles, encompassing the confines of the garage, but I could not do any fancy moves and had no inclination to learn any.

In fact, I was terrified of falling, so never went too fast.

Imagine my terror the first time I put on skates at the roller rink and walked out onto the floor. I was trembling and clearly shaken. I begged, cried, pleaded, to no avail.

So I grabbed the wall and moved. Slowly. Almost like walking. Eventually I worked up to rolling at a very slow speed, still holding tightly to the wall.

After completing the first circle, I got brave and let go. I still was not gliding, but rather stepping, but at least I was moving.

Then the instructor called us to the center of the rink. She demonstrated how to skate by putting one foot in front of the other and sent us off. I tried. I really did, but I was too scared to commit to lifting one foot in the air.

The other kids got it. I thought they were all professionals pretending to be ordinary kids. Most of them zipped around the rink. Most did this crossover maneuver when they hit the turns.

I walked.

Our next task was to learn the hokey pokey. Simple, right? Not if you’re afraid to lift a foot or turn your backside around. Which describes me perfectly.

While the others shook this and that, I stood still. The instructor tried to convince me to do it, but I refused. She cajoled. She demonstrated. She stood next to me and held my hand.

I stood still.

When the song was done, she sent us off to circle the rink again. While I was creeping along, the instructor spoke to my mom. I found out late that the instructor thought I could benefit from private lessons, but there was no money for that. My mom promised to bring me during free skate times so I could practice.

And she kept that promise despite my pleas to give up the idea.

I did not improve. I stayed terrified.

Week after week my mom forced me out onto the rink and watched while I did as little as possible.

Sometime during a lesson someone told my mom that I needed an outfit for an upcoming performance. It was to be a two-piece blue skirt and halter top. My belly would be sticking pout for all too see and the skirt was so short, that if it didn’t have built-in panties, my own would show.

I didn’t want the outfit. I didn’t want to be in the performance, but that didn’t stop my mom.

She took me to the fabric store and bought the pattern and the fabric. She sewed an outfit that would have pleased someone else, but when I put it on, all I felt was horror.

The day came. My mom drove my siblings and I to the rink so my family could see me out on the floor.

As soon as we arrived, she sent me into the restroom to change. I did. But I didn’t come out when I was finished. Instead I stood in front of the mirror, appalled at the fat that was so clearly obvious.

My mom came looking for me. She grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the room, into the spectator area of the rink.

The other kids were dressed and ready to go. Not a one of them looked like me. All had thin arms, thin legs, thin bellies. All looked awesome in their blue outfits. All stared at me as if a hippopotamus was in their midst.

I felt ill. I truly believed that I was going to throw up. I left my mom and walked into the bathroom where I locked myself in a stall.

When I heard the hokey pokey music, I cried. I knew I would get in trouble for wasting precious dollars. I knew that my father would be told. I knew that both parents would lecture and scold. I knew that I would be punished.

But I could not unlock that door. Could not return to the rink.

When it was all over, my mom brought me my clothes. When she said nothing, I knew I was in trouble.

She said nothing all the way home.

She did tell my father. He did punish me. I went to my room and cried.

Later on, I hid my skates in a dark corner of the garage and never used them again.

The sad part is that I never asked for lessons. Had never hinted that I wanted to learn to skate better. I was satisfied going in slow circles around the garage floor.

I felt like a failure. This feeling clung to me for so many years that I never wanted to try something new again.